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Page last updated at 21:59 GMT, Wednesday, 15 July 2009 22:59 UK

Obama applauds health 'milestone'

Barack Obama, flanked by Senate health committee acting chairman Chris Dodd
Mr Obama warned against complacency in the push for reform

US President Barack Obama has described the Senate health committee's vote to approve a healthcare reform bill as a "major milestone".

And he urged Congress to pass a health reform bill by the beginning of August.

The committee's bill would expand coverage to 97% of Americans, at a cost of some $600bn (£365bn).

With its vote on Wednesday, the panel became the first congressional committee to pass a bill. Four other panels are also working on bills.

'Urgency'

Three House of Representatives committees announced a joint proposal on Tuesday, and will begin voting on it on Thursday.

The Senate Finance Committee is also expected to vote on its bill soon.

Eventually, a combined bill will be put before both chambers for approval.

HEALTHCARE IN THE US
46 million uninsured, 25 million under-insured
Healthcare costs represent 16% of GDP, almost twice OECD average
Reform plans would require all Americans to get insurance
Some propose public insurance option to compete with private insurers

Speaking alongside members of the American Nurses Association, Mr Obama praised the House committee's joint proposal, and the bill approved by the Senate Health, Education, Labour and Pensions (Help) Committee.

"Yesterday, the House introduced its health reform proposal. And today... the Senate Help Committee reached a major milestone by passing a similarly strong proposal for health reform," he said.

"This progress should make us hopeful," he added.

"But it shouldn't make us complacent. It should instead provide the urgency for both the House and the Senate to finish their critical work on health reform before the August recess."

The Senate health committee's bill would expand healthcare by requiring all Americans to take out health insurance, and providing subsidies to poorer families to help them pay for their coverage.

It is estimated that some 46 million Americans do not have health insurance, and a further 25 million are thought to have inadequate insurance.

'Public option'

The healthcare plans currently being considered in Congress are all attempting to expand coverage, while also reforming the system to prevent spiralling costs.

Healthcare in the US costs $2.2tn a year, or 16% of the country's GDP - nearly double the OECD average.

All of the plans under consideration would require Americans to take out insurance, and would bar insurance companies from denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions.

The House committees' joint bill and the Senate health committee bills would also create a new, publicly run health plan, which they hope would compete with private insurers and drive down prices.

The Senate finance committee bill is not expected to include a "public option", but would instead set up non-profit medical co-operatives to compete with private insurers.

The health committee voted along party lines, with 13 Democrats in favour and 10 Republicans opposed.

The chairman of the health committee, Senator Edward Kennedy, was not present for the vote, because he is being treated for brain cancer.

Democrat Chris Dodd is acting as committee chairman in his absence.

"This time we've produced legislation that by and large I think the American people want," he said.

US MEDIA REACTION TO THE COMMITTEE'S BILL

On a party-line vote, Ted Kennedy's committee gave him his health care reform bill, the first concrete step toward a goal for which Kennedy has fought for nearly four decades... As the process goes forward, the shape of the legislation is certain to change. For starters, it will have to be merged with a more conservative measure being worked on by the Senate Finance Committee... If this turns out to be the year in which health reform finally happens, it is fitting that Kennedy's committee should be the one to put its stamp on it.

Time magazine's Karen Tumulty takes a look at a Democratic veteran's role in delivering healthcare reform.

Obama's health care proposal is, in effect, the repeal of the Medicare program as we know it. The elderly will go from being the group with the most access to free medical care to the one with the least access.

Dick Morris tries out a new line of attack on the president's proposals.

It is, as I've written before, not a perfect bill but a good one. And it creates a marker by which the bill from Senate Finance, still to come, will be judged. In the end, of course, the two bills must be combined into one, [both] before reform reaches the Senate floor and during the floor debate itself. Either way, though, the HELP bill makes it more likely that final package is one liberals can embrace enthusiastically.

The New Republic's Jonathan Cohn thinks the Help bill is the opening bid in a high-stakes negotiation.

When the... committee took up health care reform this morning, it drew the opposition of all 10 Republicans... That wasn't surprising, and it wasn't even bothersome - opposition parties are expected to oppose the majority's policy agenda. But it was nevertheless a reminder that the parties are approaching this issue in very different ways, and making reform conditional on support from Republicans is not a recipe for success (or even good policymaking).

Steve Benen, blogging at the Washington Monthly, welcomes the new, less bipartisan, tone from the Democrats.



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